Thursday, August 13, 2009

How John Hughes's movies shaped Generation X

[I wrote an article on the impact of John Hughes's movies that was posted online yesterday at My working title was "Don't You. Forget About Us." Here's part of the article.]

Shaping a Generation
Looking for love, friendship, and community: How the movies of John Hughes shaped Gen X's ecclesiology.
Al Hsu

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In the 1980s, when the generation yet-to-be-tagged-as-X were still known as "baby busters," a series of John Hughes movies depicted what it meant to be a teenager in America. Sixteen Candles. The Breakfast Club. Pretty in Pink. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Some Kind of Wonderful. Long before Napoleon Dynamite, Juno or High School Musical, Hughes's films captured the particulars of teen angst and relationships.

Hughes died last week of a heart attack at the age of 59. His funeral was held yesterday in the Chicago suburbs where so many of his movies were filmed. Ben Stein, a longtime friend and one of the Ferris Bueller stars, said Hughes "was the Wordsworth of the suburban America post-war generation."

Hughes's movies are more than a time capsule of '80s music, fashion and hair. They were formational for the worldview of many Gen Xers and shaped how we view friendship and community. By extension, they offer a glimpse into what Christian Gen Xers yearn for in the church.

Another movie of the late '80s, Dead Poets Society, exhorted viewers to carpe diem, seize the day. But what would we actually do if we were to seize that day? Ferris Bueller's answer was to take the day off with his best friend and girlfriend and hit the city. The average suburban teen moviegoer could relate more to catching a Cubs game than reciting candlelit poetry and that barbaric yawp stuff.

But the overarching theme of Ferris Bueller's Day Off is not merely "follow your heart" or "skip school." It's friendship. While Ferris is the focus of the movie, viewers do not generally identify with him. He's too singular, too unconventional. His best friend, Cameron, is the Everyman character. We all know what it's like to want to stay in bed and hide from the world. And every Cameron out there needs a friend like Ferris—someone who does unimaginable things to challenge us in ways we would never expect.

Similarly, the female protagonist is not really Ferris's girlfriend, Sloane, who is little more than eye candy. The most important female character is Ferris's sister, Jeanie, struggling with sibling rivalry and family dynamics while searching for her own identity. She too is on a journey from alienation to significance, and she finds some degree of connection to others even as she becomes more comfortable with who she is.

Yearning for community

Likewise, The Breakfast Club is about an alienated generation's yearning for friendship and community. The movie featured one of the first true ensemble casts, presaging TV shows like Friends or Lost where no one character is the lead. All of the Breakfast Club members are equally necessary for the dynamic of the movie to work. It was not just a Molly Ringwald vehicle with a supporting cast. And all of us watching longed for a community of peers where we could have equal billing and our share of the stage, not just be a sidekick to someone else's lead.

The Breakfast Club identified teen archetypes but then transcended them. On one level, the takeaway message is the familiar refrain that "we're more alike than different," looking beyond the stereotypes to show that these five seemingly diverse teenagers have more in common than not. But on another level, the movie worked to hold individuality and community in dialectical tension. Each of the five protagonists remained their own distinctive character, even as they grappled with their particular problems in the context of a larger community.

A. O. Scott of the New York Times, in his appreciative remembrance of Hughes's movies, noted that "the great, paradoxical insight of The Breakfast Club is that alienation is the norm, that nerds, jocks, stoners, popular girls and weirdos are all, in their own ways, outsiders." As a high schooler, it was a shock to my system to realize that the popular kids had their own insecurities just like the freaks and geeks did.

A movie like The Breakfast Club is intended to be viewed with friends and then discussed afterward in community, as my high school friends did on many occasions in those late '80s. We asked ourselves, "So which one do you identify with?" And we'd surprise ourselves when we found that the athlete related more with the stoner or nerd than the archetypal jock.

My sophomore year of high school, I wrote some short stories with my classmates as characters. At first they were indiscriminate, with my entire honors English class as the cast. But they gradually centered on a smaller group of friends in an attempt to define a brat pack of our own. I wanted to bring together disparate individuals from different spheres and create a Breakfast Club-like community. But I learned that community could not be artificially orchestrated, and I was often surprised with friends I would not have expected or chosen.

[For the rest of the article, go here.]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your article, I loved all of those John Hughes movies.